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Boeing’s Starliner capsule stuck on ground after helium leak

After years of delays, Boeing’s Starliner capsule was set to take off early this month with two astronauts aboard — and now the flight to the International Space Station has been put on hold indefinitely following a series of setbacks.

The original May 6 launch was scuttled hours before takeoff due to a balky rocket valve. It was rescheduled first for May 10 and then a second time for Friday, when it was decided to replace the valve on the Atlas V rocket.

All systems seemed go until yet another problem cropped up, this time with the capsule. A helium leak was detected coming from the spacecraft’s propulsion system.

After two more delays, officials with NASA, Boeing and United Launch Alliance, the rocket maker, said late Tuesday that the flight would be postponed indefinitely — a sequence of events that Boeing didn’t need.

“It’s embarrassing that Boeing was on the verge of launching this mission, and now we do not even have a time for when they are planning to launch,” said Laura Forczyk, executive director of space industry consultancy Astralytical. “On the other hand, we have waited years for this launch, so what’s another couple of weeks. They are relying on this mission to go very smoothly.”

NASA said Tuesday that it is still reviewing flight safety issues and would “share more details once we have a clearer path forward.”

The delays are particularly nettlesome for the Arlington, Va., aerospace giant because it’s years behind SpaceX in launching a crewed capsule to service the space station.

Both companies were given multibillion-dollar contracts in 2014 to develop the craft, and since 2020 Elon Musk’s Hawthorne company has ferried eight operations crews to the base — while Boeing has managed only two unmanned flights.

The companies were chosen by NASA after the agency had to rely on the Russian program to send U.S. astronauts to the station when the space shuttle program was ended in 2011.

Boeing has reportedly had to eat $1.5 billion in Starliner cost overruns, and it can ill afford a failure with astronauts aboard, especially after the two crashes of its 737 Max 8 jets and a door plug that blew out of a 737 Max 9 flight this year on its way to Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino County.

“Boeing has so much to prove. They’re just about four years behind SpaceX,” Forczyk said. “They need to make sure they have all their ducks lined up in a row.”

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